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April 21, 2021

Earth Day 2021: What the Yamuna River Teaches Us About Climate Change and Human Rights

Posted by Cindy Wu JD'22

You may have seen images of Hindu devotees immersing themselves in large clouds of white foam floating through the Yamuna River in Delhi, India. But what may seem otherworldly belies something much more sinister: a river of deep religious and life-giving significance for millions of people, teeming with toxic industrial and residential pollutants.

Alongside three other Harvard Law School students and our Clinical Instructor, Aminta Ossom, I have spent this past semester studying the relationship between climate change and inequality. This Earth Day, our team is thinking about how climate change and human activities are working in tandem to degrade and deplete the Yamuna River. This environmental harm has significant impacts on the enjoyment of the right to water, as well as on other rights, like cultural rights and the rights to adequate health and livelihoods.

What is the Yamuna?


The Yamuna—a tributary of the Ganga River—is critical both in Hindu culture and as a source of livelihood. Millions of Hindus worship the river as a goddess, and many make an annual pilgrimage, where they immerse themselves to wash away their sins and to bring health and prosperity. Besides its religious significance, the Yamuna supports the livelihoods of farmers, fisher-folk and boatsmen and is a crucial source of water for 57 million people, especially for those in the Delhi region.

A young boy sits on a trash-ridden beach in front of the Yamuna River.
The Yamuna River near Okhla Bird Sanctuary. Creative Commons License 2.0 Generic by Subodh Kumar Jha.

Why is the Yamuna at risk?


The religious and socioeconomic importance of the Yamuna makes what has happened to it all the more grave. The river is victim to multiple interacting forces—including pollution, urbanization, over-exploitation, and climate change—that place it at significant risk. As a result of these forces, the Yamuna ranks among the most polluted rivers in both India and the world. In fact, this river has been deemed unfit for any human use, including for irrigation, hygiene, or consumption.

Originating in a Himalayan glacier in the state of Uttarakhand, the river traverses seven states before reaching Delhi. Although pollutants enter the Yamuna at various points throughout its 855-mile length, the Delhi stretch of the river is hardest hit, contributing about three-quarters of the river’s overall pollution load.

The two main sources of pollution in the Yamuna are domestic and industrial. Pollution from domestic sources (i.e., sewage, detergents, oil and grease, etc.) comprises approximately 85% of the river’s total pollution load. Because of deficiencies in, and the systemic underutilization of, Delhi’s wastewater treatment systems, high volumes of untreated domestic wastewater directly enter the river from various Delhi neighbourhoods. This lack of treatment has alarming effects on the Yamuna’s waters. A 2011 study, which the team consulted to understand questions of water quality, found that water collected from the Delhi stretch of the Yamuna contained a concentration of 1.1 billion fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters, vastly outstripping the acceptable standard for bathing of 500 coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters. The river also contains unsafe levels of fluoride, nitrate, arsenic, and other harmful chemicals and compounds.

The second main source of pollution comes from untreated wastewater and pollutants discharged by industrial facilities. In the spring of 2020, after the COVID-19 lockdown briefly halted Delhi’s industrial activity, many Delhi residents commented that the river seemed to regain its sparkle, and a report by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee found that pollutant levels in the river substantially decreased.

Along with intense pollution, the Yamuna’s supply of fresh water is also vulnerable to depletion from over-exploitation and climate change. In particular, climate change has contributed to the water deficit through its impact on India’s monsoon cycle, which has led to an increase in short-duration, high-intensity rainstorms, as well as bouts of insufficient rainfall. Climate change is also connected to serious droughts, quick storm bursts, and  floods that cause deaths, property damage, and the accumulation of additional polluted runoff in the Yamuna. Damage and pollution from the floods is further compounded by soil erosion, which increases as the Yamuna’s waters absorb atmospheric carbon emissions and acidify.

How does this impact Delhi residents?


The pollution and depletion of the Yamuna impacts Delhi residents in several dimensions of their lives. For the millions of Hindus who believe in the river’s divine quality, its pollution can make it more difficult for them to practice their religious rituals. The pollution also has a direct impact on those who depend on the river for their livelihoods.

Significantly for our research, the precarity of the Yamuna threatens the main source of drinking water for millions of people. Anywhere from 18-26% of Delhi’s population lacks access to government-supplied, piped water, a reality acutely experienced by the large proportion of Delhi residents living in informal settlements. Without access to government-supplied water, these residents are forced to find alternatives sources of treated water that can be irregular or expensive, like tanker trucks, water bottles, water ATMS, or local purification systems. For those who can’t access treated sources, the Yamuna’s polluted waters present serious health risks, including illnesses such as diarrhea, typhoid, cancer, and atherosclerosis. Moreover, given their principal role in water collection, women are especially likely to encounter poor water quality that puts them at risk of disease.

Where do we go from here?


Protecting the Yamuna and improving access to quality drinking water will take a lot of work. International human rights law requires governments to use all means at their disposal to protect the numerous economic and social rights threatened by climate change and environmental degradation, including the right to water.  Along with the enactment and stronger enforcement of anti-pollution measures, cleaning up the Yamuna will also require significant investment in water treatment capacity, better sewage infrastructure, and legal reform on the access to water in informal settlements. So far, governments at the local and national level have made initial commitments in this area. However, more could be done. 

These circumstances also require reflection from those of us situated in high-emissions countries. As a research team located in the United States, a country whose per capita emissions far exceed India’s emission levels, we have realized that we also bear responsibility for the impact of climate change on the Yamuna. Environmental degradation disparately harms marginalized populations at the local level, like Delhi residents living in informal settlements. But climate change-based inequality is also evident at the global level: residents of low-emissions countries who have historically borne the least responsibility for emissions often bear the brunt of climate change’s harms. Countries that have contributed significantly to climate change should therefore play a role, through international cooperation, to protect the communities that are most vulnerable to its impacts. Such an approach has a basis in both international human rights and environmental law.

Having resituated my perspective this semester, I no longer see the toxic clouds of white foam floating down the Yamuna as a remote phenomenon. Instead it is, at its core, an arresting manifestation of how climate change exacerbates local harms and global inequalities. 

Cindy Wu JD’22 is a student in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. Before HLS, she studied International Relations and Peace, Conflict & Justice at the University of Toronto.

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